“Can we spend the first few days looking for a car? I’m pretty sure I promised you a car.”

“Really?” She smiled.


“Pick a color, baby.”

Abby jumped on me again, wrapping her legs and arms around me and covering my face with kisses.

“Oh, stop it, you two,” America said.

Abby dropped to her feet, and America pulled on her wrist. “Let’s go in. I wanna see your tat!”

The girls rushed up the stairs, leaving me and Shepley to the luggage. I helped him with America’s numerous, heavy bags, grabbing mine and Abby’s as well.

We heaved the luggage up the stairs and were grateful that the door had been left open.

Abby was lying on the couch, her jeans unbuttoned and folded over, looking down as America inspected the delicate, black curves along Abby’s skin.

America looked up at Shepley, who was red-faced and sweating. “I’m so glad we’re not crazy, baby.”

“Me, too,” Shepley said. “I hope you wanted these in here, because I’m not taking them back out to the car.”

-- Advertisement --

“I did, thank you.” She smiled sweetly, returning to Abby’s ink.

Shepley puffed as he disappeared into his bedroom, bringing out a bottle of wine in each hand.

“What’s that?” Abby said.

“Your reception,” Shepley said with a wide grin.

ABBY PULLED SLOWLY INTO AN EMPTY PARKING SPACE, carefully checking each side. She had chosen a brand-new, silver Toyota Camry the day before, and the few times I could get her behind the wheel, she drove it as if she were secretly borrowing someone’s Lamborghini.

After two stops, she finally put the gearshift in Park, and turned off the engine.

“We’ll have to get a parking sticker,” she said, checking the space on her side again.

“Yes, Pidge. I’ll take care of it,” I said for the fourth time.

I wondered to myself if I should have waited another week or so before adding the stress of a new car. We both knew by the end of the day that the school’s rumor mill would be spreading the news of our marriage, along with a fictional scandal or two. Abby purposefully wore skinny jeans and a tight-fitting sweater to ward off the inevitable questions about a pregnancy. We might have gotten married on the fly, but kids were a whole new level, and we were both content to wait.

A few drops fell from the gray, spring sky as we started our trek to our classes across campus. I pulled my red ball cap low on my forehead, and Abby opened her umbrella. We both stared at Keaton Hall as we passed, noting the yellow tape and blackened brick above each window. Abby grabbed at my coat, and I held her, trying not to think about what had happened.

Shepley heard that Adam had been arrested. I hadn’t said anything to Abby, afraid that I was next, and that it would cause her needless worry.

Part of me thought that the news about the fire would keep unwanted attention from Abby’s ring finger, but I knew that the news of our marriage would be a welcome distraction from the grim reality of losing classmates in such a horrific way.

Like I expected, when we arrived at the cafeteria, my frat brothers and the football team were congratulating us on our wedding and our impending son.

“I’m not pregnant,” Abby said, shaking her head.

“But . . . you guys are married, right?” Lexi said, dubious.

“Yes,” Abby said simply.

Lexi raised an eyebrow. “I’ll guess we’ll find out the truth soon enough.”

I jerked my head to the side. “Beat it, Lex.”

She ignored me. “I guess you both heard about the fire?”

“A little bit,” Abby said, clearly uncomfortable.

“I heard students were having a party down there. That they’ve been sneaking into basements all year.”

“Is that so?” I asked. From the corner of my eye I could see Abby looking up at me, but I tried not to look too relieved. If that was true, maybe I’d be off the hook.

The rest of the day was spent either being stared at or congratulated. For the first time, I wasn’t stopped between classes by different girls wanting to know my plans for the weekend. They just watched as I walked by, hesitant to approach someone else’s husband. It was actually kinda nice.

My day was going pretty well, and I wondered if Abby could say the same. Even my psych professor offered me a small smile and nod when she overhead my answer to questions about whether the rumor was true.

After our last class, I met Abby at the Camry, and tossed our bags into the backseat. “Was it as bad as you thought?”

“Yes.” She breathed.

“I guess today wouldn’t be a good day to break it to my dad, then, huh?”

“No, but we’d better. You’re right, I don’t want him hearing the news somewhere else.”

Her answer surprised me, but I didn’t question it. Abby tried to get me to drive, but I refused, insisting she get comfortable behind the wheel.

The drive to Dad’s from campus didn’t take long—but longer than if I’d driven. Abby obeyed all traffic laws, mostly because she was nervous about getting pulled over and accidentally handing the cop the fake ID.

Our little town seemed different as it passed by, or maybe it was me that wasn’t the same. I wasn’t sure if it was being a married man that made me feel a little more relaxed—laid-back, even—or if I had finally settled into my own skin. I was now in a situation where I didn’t have to prove myself, because the one person that fully accepted me, my best friend, was now a permanent fixture in my life.

It seemed like I had completed a task, overcome an obstacle. I thought about my mother, and the words she said to me almost a lifetime ago. That’s when it clicked: she had asked me not to settle, to fight for the person I loved, and for the first time, I did what she expected of me. I had finally lived up to who she wanted me to be.

I took a deep, cleansing breath, and reached over to rest my hand on Abby’s knee.

“What is it?” she asked.

“What is what?”

“The look on your face.”

Her eyes shifted between me and the road, extremely curious. I imagined it was a new expression, but I couldn’t begin to explain what it might look like.

“I’m just happy, baby.”

Abby half hummed, half laughed. “Me, too.”

Admittedly I was a little nervous about telling my dad about our eventful getaway to Vegas, but not because he would be mad. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but the butterflies in my stomach swirled faster and harder with every block closer that we came to Dad’s house.

Abby pulled into the gravel driveway, soggy from the rain, and stopped beside the house.

“What do you think he’ll say?” she asked.

“I don’t know. He’ll be happy, I know that.”

“You think so?” Abby asked, reaching for my hand.

I squeezed her fingers between mine. “I know so.”

Before we could make it to the front door, Dad stepped out onto the porch.

“Well, hello there, kids” he said, smiling. His eyes scrunched as his cheeks pushed up the puffy bags under his eyes. “I wasn’t sure who was out here. Did you get a new car, Abby? It’s nice.”

“Hey, Jim.” Abby smiled. “Travis did.”

“It’s ours,” I said, pulling off my ball cap. “We thought we’d stop by.”

“I’m glad you did . . . glad you did. We’re getting some rain, I guess.”

“I guess,” I said, my nerves stifling any ability I had for small talk. What I thought were nerves was really just excitement to share the news with my father.

Dad knew something was amiss. “You had a good spring break?”

“It was . . . interesting,” Abby said, leaning into my side.


“We took a trip, Dad. We skipped on over to Vegas for a couple of days. We decided to uh . . . we decided to get married.”

Dad paused for a few seconds, and then his eyes quickly searched for Abby’s left hand. When he found the validation he was looking for, he looked to Abby, and then to me.

“Dad?” I said, surprised by the blank expression on his face.

My father’s eyes glossed a bit, and then the corners of his mouth slowly turned up. He outstretched his arms, and enveloped me and Abby at the same time.

Smiling, Abby peeked over at me. I winked back at her.

“I wonder what Mom would say if she were here,” I said.

Dad pulled back, his eyes wet with happy tears. “She’d say you did good, son.” He looked at Abby. “She’d say thank you for giving her boy back something that left him when she did.”

“I don’t know about that,” Abby said, wiping her eyes. She was clearly overwhelmed by Dad’s sentiment.

He hugged us again, laughing and squeezing at the same time. “You wanna bet?”


THE WALLS DRIPPED WITH RAINWATER FROM THE streets above. The droplets plopped down into deepening puddles, as if they were crying for him, the bastard lying in the middle of the basement in a pool of his own blood.

I breathed hard, looking down at him, but not for long. Both of my Glocks were pointed in opposite directions, holding Benny’s men in place until the rest of my team arrived.

The earpiece buried deep in my ear buzzed. “ETA ten seconds, Maddox. Good work.” The head of my team, Henry Givens, spoke quietly, knowing as well as I did that with Benny dead, it was all over.

A dozen men with automatic rifles and dressed in black from head to toe rushed in, and I lowered my weapons. “They’re just bag men. Get ’em the hell out of here.”

After holstering my pistols, I pulled the remaining tape from my wrists and trudged up the basement stairs. Thomas waited for me at the top, his khaki coat and hair drenched from the storm.

“You did what you had to do,” he said, following me to the car. “You all right?” he said, reaching for the cut on my eyebrow.

I’d been sitting in that wooden chair for two hours, getting my ass kicked while Benny questioned me. They’d figured me out that morning—all part of the plan, of course—but the end of his interrogation was supposed to result in his arrest, not his death.

My jaws worked violently under the skin. I had come a long way from losing my temper and beating the hell out of anyone that sparked my rage. But in just a few seconds, all of my training had been rendered worthless, and it just took Benny speaking her name for that to happen.

“I’ve gotta get home, Tommy. I’ve been away for weeks, and it’s our anniversary . . . or what’s left of it.”

I yanked open the car door, but Thomas grabbed my wrist. “You need to be debriefed, first. You’ve spent years on this case.”

“Wasted. I’ve wasted years.”

Thomas sighed. “You don’t wanna bring this home with you, do you?”

I sighed. “No, but I have to go. I promised her.”

“I’ll call her. I’ll explain.”

“You’ll lie.”

“It’s what we do.”

The truth was always ugly. Thomas was right. He practically raised me, but I didn’t truly know him until I was recruited by the FBI. When Thomas left for college, I thought he was studying advertising, and later he told us he was an advertising executive in California. He was so far away, it was easy for him to keep his cover.

Looking back, it made sense, now, why Thomas had decided to come home for once without needing a special occasion—the night he met Abby. Back then, when he’d first started investigating Benny and his numerous illegal activities, it was just blind luck that his little brother met and fell in love with the daughter of one of Benny’s borrowers. Even better that we ended up entangled in his business.

The second I graduated with a degree in criminal justice, it just made sense for the FBI to contact me. The honor was lost on me. It never occurred to me or Abby that they had thousands of applications a year, and didn’t make a habit of recruiting. But I was a built-in undercover operative, already having connections to Benny.

Years of training and time away from home had culminated to Benny lying on the floor, his dead eyes staring up at the ceiling of the underground. The entire magazine of my Glock was buried deep in his torso.

I lit a cigarette. “Call Sarah at the office. Tell her to book me the next flight. I want to be home before midnight.”

“He threatened your family, Travis. We all know what Benny is capable of. No one blames you.”

“He knew he was caught, Tommy. He knew he had nowhere to go. He baited me. He baited me, and I fell for it.”

“Maybe. But detailing the torture and death of the wife of his most lethal acquaintance wasn’t exactly good business. He had to know he couldn’t intimidate you.”

“Yeah,” I said through clenched teeth, remembering the vivid picture Benny painted of kidnapping Abby and stripping the flesh away from her bones piece by piece. “I bet he wishes he wasn’t such a good storyteller, now.”

“And there is always Mick. He’s next on the list.”

“I told you, Tommy. I can consult on that one. Not a good idea for me to participate.”

Thomas only smiled, willing to wait another time for that discussion.

I slid into the backseat of the car that was waiting to take me to the airport. Once the door closed behind me, and the driver pulled away from the curb, I dialed Abby’s number.

“Hi, baby,” Abby lilted.

Immediately, I took a deep, cleansing breath. Her voice was all the debriefing I needed.

“Happy anniversary, Pigeon. I’m on my way home.”

“You are?” she asked, her voice rising an octave. “Best present, eve r.”

“How’s everything?”

“We’re over at Dad’s. James just won another hand of poker. I’m starting to worry.”

-- Advertisement --